The anti-protest rule for BBC News staff misses the point

Stopping journalists from speaking up for trans rights is a backwards step for impartiality.

Photo by alleksana on

The BBC is under new management. Recently-appointed Director General Tim Davie, a longtime BBC exec, took the helm last month, promising greater transparency and a renewed commitment to impartiality, a core BBC value. “If you want to be an opinionated columnist or a partisan campaigner on social media then that is a valid choice, but you should not be working at the BBC,” he said.

Broadly, I agree with him. I love the BBC and what it stands for. When clips from American news shows go viral every few weeks, the overt partisanship – on both sides – is always jarring. The politicisation of institutions which should be a source of something approaching truth has contributed to a situation in the US where the political party you support directly dictates the news you consume and the way you see the world. BBC News isn’t perfect, but having a news source with a stated aim of impartial reporting is inherently valuable.

The problem is that in the murky waters of social media, the lines between the professional and the personal are increasingly blurred. Journalists and broadcasters have always held their own opinions in private; having opinions has never kept good journalists from creating impartial journalism. With today’s reporters and researchers having Twitter and Instagram and real lives for all to see, there is no longer any point in pretending they get into a cupboard at the end of the day and don’t engage with the world. 

However, earlier this week Davie issued new guidance regarding social media usage for BBC staff, which led to widespread concern. It was reported in the i that news and current affairs staff would be breaching these rules if they attended marches and protests deemed to be “political”, including Black Lives Matter marches and LGBTQ+ Pride events. After much reaction online (and, you have to assume, internally at the BBC) Davie yesterday released a “clarifying” statement to staff that did little to allay fears.

“There is no issue for [news and current affairs] staff attending community events that are clearly commemorative or celebratory and do not compromise perceptions of their impartiality. If news and current affairs staff are participating in such events they must be mindful of ensuring that they do not get involved in matters which could be deemed political or controversial.”

Notably, this emailed statement is on the subject of Pride; Black Lives Matter has not been addressed, implying that staffers would, as reported, likely be unable to attend those events.

It is a sign both of the progress that has been made and the depths to which UK discourse has descended that the phrase “matters which could be deemed political or controversial” in relation to LGBTQ+ events is a clear dog-whistle of transphobia. That’s not to say that homophobia, biphobia and other forms of bigotry towards queer people no longer exist, but we have allowed transphobes to shift the window of acceptable debate so far that speaking up for our trans siblings (or indeed being trans and speaking up for yourself) is seen as an unacceptably controversial position for an impartial journalist.

There are so many reasons why this is a deeply concerning development, but the nature of this clarification reveals a glaring lack of awareness about what Pride is. Each June, the most cursory glance at the internet (or, I guess, the outside world, in the Before Times) throws up lots of wonderful, colourful Pride content. All manner of companies and organisations give us a rainbow-coloured logo and tweets of support, but mixed among all the late-stage capitalism is the constant reminder: Pride is a protest. Pride marches emerged from the Gay Liberation movement in the early 1970s and have never been anything but political. The idea of a purely “commemorative or celebratory” event is insulting to the countless queer people who fought long and hard for our right to exist apolitically, for our lives to be seen as uncontroversial enough to be celebrated in an impartial way, a right that is still expressly denied to Black and trans people. 

The second reason why this pronouncement is so egregious is that it stokes the flames of division among the LGBTQ+ community itself. You don’t need to go back very far to see how stark these divisions are: Pride in London 2018 was interrupted by a group of anti-trans protesters, spouting transphobia in the name of “lesbian erasure”. By telling their staff “you can be queer, but not that type of queer” or “you can support gay rights, but trans rights is a bridge too far” the BBC are playing into the hands of those who would like to see the T kicked out of LGBTQ+ altogether. Trans people have been at the heart of Pride since day one; they are not some newfangled phenomenon we can divorce from the wider queer community. As more and more public figures feel the need to join She Who Must Not Be Named in spreading misinformation and bigotry, denying BBC News staff the right to express solidarity with, support for, or even perhaps membership of the trans community looks less like “impartiality” and closer to oppression. And, again, this is a situation presumably shared by Black people and other POC on staff and their allies when it comes to anti-racism protests.

There are some areas where balance and impartiality are essential, like elections and product reviews. I wouldn’t feel comfortable being given political analysis by someone who was openly shilling for one party or another in their spare time. But unlike which party you vote for or how you felt about the EU Referendum, Pride marches and anti-racism protests are about people’s very identities. Being trans, or loving someone trans, or just believing that trans people exist and deserve human rights should not be a political position.

Ben Hunte wears headphones in a radio studio and smiles to someone off camera.
Ben Hunte, BBC News LGBT Correspondent. Picture: BBC

Two years ago the BBC finally admitted it no longer needed to find a denier anytime it wanted to cover climate change, and it states in its editorial guidelines “The BBC is not impartial on racism” (although these new rules call that into question somewhat). There will come a day when it will be possible to talk about issues that affect trans people without it being a “contested issue”. It is never impartial to question someone’s personhood. It is not “balance” to let a small faction of loud, angry people with twitter accounts dictate public discourse.

The suggestion that “perceptions of impartiality” are more important than respecting employees’ right to protest issues that directly affect them is a worrying indication of the direction of travel at the BBC. Less than two years ago, Ben Hunte was named BBC News’s first ever LGBT Correspondent, with a remit to cover “the stories, issues and debates surrounding sexuality and gender and focus on providing insight and analysis on matters affecting the LGBT community in the UK”, an explicit acknowledgement that trans people exist and are worthy of coverage. Now it seems that such a position might be deemed too controversial for individual staff members to share. Hunte said yesterday that for many LGBT staff Tim Davie’s follow-up statement “has come far too late to undo the anger, resentment and confusion that was allowed to take hold for nearly 18 hours.” If the BBC wants to continue working with journalists and broadcasters at the top of their field – something we should all want for our national broadcaster – it must urgently rethink these guidelines.

Author: Jodie Manning

Hello! My pronouns are she/her and I am an enthusiastic opinion-haver, mostly-amateur writer, once-published poet, and the person who makes 99% of the Taylor Swift references on The Phase.

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